North America’s charming citronella ants

Lasius (Acanthomyops) arizonicus with mealybug, Huachuca Mountains, Arizona.

Students of the North American myrmecofauna will undoubtedly recognize this ant.  Pudgy, pleasingly orange in color, and smelling sweetly of citrus, the citronella ant is an endearing creature. This Nearctic endemic is among our most common ants, living in underground empires farming root aphids and mealybugs for sustenance.

Yet few people ever encounter these shy insects.  They emerge above ground for only a few hours each year, in late summer to see off the colony’s winged reproductives.

The dozen or so citronella ant species have been placed historically in the genus Acanthomyops, a tightly-defined group marked by a number of recognizable morphological traits.  This arrangement is no longer viable.  Taxonomists had long suspected that Acanthomyops was a daughter lineage descended from the widespread Holarctic Lasius. Their suspicion has been confirmed by molecular genetic data from multiple studies, and Ward (2005) performed the inevitable demotion.  Acanthomyops is now a subgenus of Lasius.

Carrying the mealybug to safety.

photo details: Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 20D
ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/13, flash diffused through tracing paper

13 thoughts on “North America’s charming citronella ants”

  1. Endearing, yes…

    But to be respected. Seeing the many acute teeth on this worker’s mandibles, I suspect her bite must be quite painful. Even the distant relative Lasius flavus inflicts a surprisingly aching one, given its fairly small size, especially when getting at the basis of the fingers and spraying formic acid inside the wound.
    BTW, I think some of the “Citronella Ants” don’t smell citronella at all. But maybe this results from confusions with other yellow Laisus?
    While Acanthomyops queens have a quite distinctive, somewhat Myrmicine-like outline, workers are sometimes difficult to tell apart from workers of the umbratus group ( the so-called subgenus “Chtonolaisius”)

  2. Aydin — The ants do not actually eat the hemipterans, but rather, their sugary waste product known as honeydew. They have an excess of sugar in their plant sap diet, and a specialized mechanism for excreting this while concentrating other nutrients.

    MrILTA — Different species fly at different times of the summer. Merl Wing’s revision of the (sub-)genus, complete with detailed flight records, is accessible here

    Richard — I recognize your name from bugguide. This isn’t my blog, but one I frequent, so good to see you drop in. Anyway, in fact all the Acanthomyops do in fact have citronellol in their mandibular gland secretions, so I would second your guess about confusion with other Lasius. Some of those other yellow ones are quite shiny and have reduced, though not completely lost, terminal maxillary palp segments.

    1. What is the difference between this ant and a ferrel ant? The ants we found have burrowed holes in ground are an orange color. Live in northwest Ohio.

      1. I’m not sure what “ferrel” (=”feral”?) ants are. That term could conceivably mean any outdoors ant, of which Ohio has more than 100 species. But this genus, Lasius has a number of species that could fit your description, including these. Lasius neoniger is common in your area.

  3. Pingback: Citronella Ant | StellaLou Farm

  4. Hey there! I know this is kinda off topic nevertheless I’d figured I’d ask.
    Would you be interested in trading links or maybe guest authoring a
    blog article or vice-versa? My site goes over a lot of
    the same subjects as yours and I feel we could greatly benefit from each other.

    If you are interested feel free to send me an email. I look forward to hearing from you!

    Great blog by the way!

  5. What is the difference between this ant and a ferrel ant? The ants we found have burrowed holes in ground are an orange color. Live in northwest Ohio.

  6. It is late August here in Colorado and I have just spied a couple of swarms of citronella ants coming from beneat some stone garden steps outside my kitchen window. I thought they were pavement ants, which I occasionally get inside my home (which is built on rocky ground, a slab with no basement). But after some sleuthing (including at BugGuide where they were discovering the sexual dimorphism in these swarms), I’m pretty sure they are citronella ants. Lovely to know the life that goes on underground. I can’t smell the lemony essence, but doesn’t that only appear when they are threatened or crushed? Which I shall not do. Love your essay.

Leave a Reply